Thanks to an avalanche of advance publicity, waterfowlers are well aware that steel shot will be mandatory when the duck season opens in a few weeks. But what hasn’t been publicised to any extent is that there are legal alternatives to steel shot. As well, it is not widely known that in some circumstances lead shot can still be used to hunt migratory birds.

If this sounds confusing, let me explain. As was indicated earlier, there is not a general province-wide ban on the use of lead shot to hunt waterfowl. Non-toxic shot must be used this season to hunt migratory game birds only in areas within 200 metres of any watercourse or body of water. Department of Natural Resources waterfowl biologist Randy Milton tells me this means that if you hunt ducks and geese within 200 metres of brooks, rivers, lakes, ponds and the Atlantic Ocean, you cannot use lead shot. Outside this 200-metre zone lead shot is legal. The onus, Milton said, will be on hunters to prove they are outside the 200-metre limit if they are confronted by a game warden while hunting waterfowl with lead shot.

The good news for the woodcock hunters of the province is that for now, this bird is exempt from the ban on lead shot outside of national wildlife areas. At least for this season hunters can use lead shot to bag woodcock. This may change, Milton said, when ongoing woodcock studies are completed and it is clearly understood what effect if any, the use lead shot has on this popular game bird.

When the upcoming ban on lead shot was announced a few years ago, most of the talk was about steel shot. At first, there was negative press about steel shot and hunters became concerned about its performance and its possible detrimental effect on shotguns. Thanks to the Department of Natural Resources, who worked with the Canadian Wildlife Service in staging seminars around the province, most of the fears and myths about steel shot were laid to rest.

Generally speaking, most shotguns can safely handle steel shot if they are choked for it. Since steel shotshells throw tighter patterns, open bored shotguns work best. Gunsmiths say this means that some of the older shotguns will require reboring to more open chokes, but even when this is done there may be some “cosmetic wear.” Most of the newer shotguns on the market were made to take steel shot. Remington told me recently via email that all of their current shotguns were manufactured to handle steel loads.

During the seminars conducted last year by Natural Resources little was mentioned in the handout literature about alternatives to steel – an omission that was puzzling until I realised a manufacturer of steel shot was supplying ammo free of charge for the seminars. Wildlife Division manager Barry Sabean told me the Canadian Wildlife Service concentrated on steel shot as an alternative to lead shot only because of the cost factor. Alternative non-toxic shot is more costly than steel, he said.

Hunters concerned with costs will find steel shot much less expensive than the alternatives. But before examining the “cost factor” let’s look at the alternatives. Recently the Federal Government announced that in addition to steel, three other non-toxic shot types have been approved for waterfowling: bismuth shot, tungsten-iron shot and tungsten-polymer shot.

After a check of local stores, I found that only the tungsten-polymer shot isn’t available yet. Steel, bismuth and tungsten-iron shells are available in a variety of loads and shot sizes suitable for waterfowling. Steel loads are the least expensive. Canadian Tire’s Supreme brand steel loads retail at only $9.99 for a box of 20, for example, and this is a dirt cheap price for what I’ve found to be a reliable shell. Bismuth loads start at a shocking average of $2. per shell and up. Tungsten-iron loads in 12 gauge, boxes of 20, sell somewhere between steel and bismuth. Boxes of 20 shells at Canadian Tire retail for $29.99, for example.

While bismuth loads are the most costly, they appear to be the best bet for hunters who desire to use non-toxic shot in older shotguns without worrying about the possible wear and tear of steel shot. I’ll have more on this from North America’s leading maker of bismuth loads next week.

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